By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 26, 2009 at 2:22AM
I knew we'd have a lively screenwriters panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this year because we had two actor-writers--Tom McCarthy (who also directed The Visitor) and Robert Knott (Appaloosa) as well as writer-director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, nominated for 6 Oscars, including original screenplay), who is one of the most entertaining guys around, and young Dustin Lance Black (nommed for Milk).
Cal Arts grad Stanton has spent 18 years at Pixar, where he has written some of the best-reviewed movies of all time, including Wall-E, the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo (which he also directed) and Toy Story 1 and II, which he rewrote from scratch in three months, which he was only able to do because he knew the characters so well. Years ago when Stanton started writing Wall-E, he probably didn't have the chops to pull it off, he says now. The film carried the title Trash Planet for years, and even Steve Jobs wanted to keep it, but Stanton held his ground, because he knew "not a single girl would go," he said. ("What does Steve Jobs know about marketing?" quipped McCarthy.) Stanton originally wrote the doughy fat humans in Wall-E as gelatinous green creatures but soon realized the yuck factor was too great, so he made them into humans whose bones had gone soft (per real NASA research). When Hello, Dolly went into the movie, they had to use those images, so the Fred Willard video was live action too.
Why does Pixar have such a track record of excellence? Stanton chalks it up to the process they have of presenting everyone's work every so often and tearing it to shreds. Stanton thinks animation is starting to pull out of the ghetto and will make it to a best picture Oscar one day; progress is being made. Meanwhile he's writing his first adaptation, of Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars, a favorite novel since childhood, and his first live-action movie, for Disney, not Pixar. Casting begins soon.
McCarthy spent a few months at Pixar working on Up, and testified that the experience was "brutal." The actor played the ambitious young newspaper reporter in The Wire, among many other roles (including a 30-second cameo date with Tina Fey in Baby Mama) and wrote and directed the BAFTA and Indie Spirit-award-winning The Station Agent. The Visitor is up for a Spirit for writing as well. And McCarthy is over the moon that Robert Jenkins nabbed an Oscar nom. He wrote the script for him, as a young Gene Hackman wasn't available. And he didn't worry that the character was passive and low-key. He thinks no one else could have played him so well, with such "emotional authenticity." Here's my April interview with McCarthy. These days he is acting up a storm while working on another script.
Oklahoma-born Robert Knott has acted in a ton of TV series and westerns (including The Hi-Lo Country), and worked with his old theater pal Ed Harris on Pollock as well as Appaloosa. It's a detailed, delicious character study about two gunslingers for hire (Harris and Viggo Mortensen) and a woman (Rene Zellweger) who comes into town and changes their buddy chemistry. Knott says when he's writing he gets on a boat and doesn't know where it's going to go, he just follows the characters. He started writing because the scripts he read were so bad. If he didn't get the part he'd throw the script in the trash. And if he did--well he knew he could do better. Knott hopes to make, with Harris, movies of two more Robert Parker novels.
Dustin Lance Black earned an Oscar nom for Milk, which scored 8 noms. Raised a Mormon in San Antonio, Texas, Black is also a writer-producer on HBO's Big Love, which is starting its third season. He came to UCLA, and was heavily influenced by the late San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk, who was profiled in the Rob Epstein doc The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Black did a lot of research, getting to know the real people close to Milk. And he used politics as the story's spine, which initally worried Van Sant. Black felt he needed a narrower focus, or the whole biopic would get unwieldy. He says there are still many gay kids like he used to be, as well as the real-life suicidal teen portrayed in the movie, who feel alienated, not accepted and lost in their lives. The filmmakers did want to bring the movie out before the Prop 8 vote but simply couldn't get it finished in time. Black is writing another film for Gus Van Sant, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for which he's been doing a lot of research (!).
[Photo of writers from left-- Tom McCarthy, Andrew Stanton, Robert Knott, Dustin Lance Black-- by me; panel photo of McCarthy, left, and Stanton, foreground, by Norman Christophersen.]
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]